White House Correspondents' Dinner Entertainment, Ranked Edition
Back in 1921, when the White House Correspondents' Association held its first dinner, Prohibition was on, and all 50 members of the new group were old white guys in tight-fitting suits. They stood around a piano and sang songs. President Warren G. Harding didn’t even bother to attend, even though he had been a newspaper publisher. There were empty seats at the end of the banquet table.
Fast forward a few decades. Trail to the Chief doesn’t need Tom Brokaw, the Savonarola of Sun Valley, to tell us how inane -- or worse -- the WHCD has become. We know. One member of the TTTC team (guess which one!) has been attending the dinner since 1981. In those ”early” days, actual reporters invited actual sources, such as the staff director of the Senate Budget Committee, or a deputy press secretary, or the head of a new-fangled thing called a “PAC.” Journalistic activity was committed, albeit in an attenuated way.
Okay, so! Now the White House Correspondents' Dinner is all grade-B show biz, selfies, and now Periscope and Meerkat. It's a four-day-long, self-important weekend of corporate-funded lubrication, overrun by Hollywood agents and their star clients, Big Media lobbyists, and journalists who think that because they are (sort of) “visible,” they are smart, cool and influential.
And the notion that the president wouldn’t attend this dinner? It’s now just about unthinkable. Which is something that our 2016 candidates should think about -- especially those who vow to fight the "Washington machine.”
In substantive terms, only one thing has gotten better over the years: the comedy. Bob Hope became the founding father of WHCD comedy in 1944, but it wasn’t really until the '90s that comedy at the dinner became a Thing. Now it is a Big Thing -- the only thing the attendees take seriously. Whole pundit shows are built around analyzing who killed it and who didn’t.
The presidents themselves have long since gotten into the act, tapping top writers to produce excellent material. President Barack Obama has proven to have a nice laconic style and good timing: Bob Newhart with a pinch of Richard Pryor. Of course, he has a good team of writers assisting him.
As with many other things of mixed value in American life, the Age of Comedy at the WHCD gained real momentum once Bill Clinton arrived on the scene. Something about that saxophone. Here is the official TTTC rundown of the best and most memorable comedy performances of dinners past. We’ll update it Monday when we soberly (humorlessly) analyze Cecily Strong’s performance.
|1||STEPHEN COLBERTLoved by many, hated by some, Colbert’s wholesale filleting of President George W. Bush and the White House press corps remains controversial to this day. But he’s the only comedian whose fame actually increased after performing at the dinner. [Watch]||2006|
|2||SETH MEYERSThe night would have been plenty memorable with just Meyers and his juicy Donald Trump barbs. But his jokes about trying to catch Osama bin Laden are all the more memorable because of what was actually happening behind the scenes. [Watch]||2011|
|3||KEVIN SPACEYNothing like a Kevin Spacey monologue to raise the bar of hilarity. But his Frank Underwood take on “Nerd Prom” is defining, and a little bit subversive. [Watch]||2013|
|4||BILL CLINTONClinton’s “Final Days” video ushered in a new era of high-concept comedy at the dinner. And those scenes of Clinton riding away from the White House are hilarious given what's happening now. [Watch]||2000|
|5||JON STEWARTBefore he was tapped to torch the Beltway and the media as the host of “The Daily Show,” an impossibly young and far less cynical (relative to now) Stewart hosted, after both Rosie O’Donnell and Dennis Miller declined. [Watch]||1997|
|6||WANDA SYKESSykes ticked off a ton of “firsts” as host -- first black female comedienne, first openly gay woman. She also ticked off the professional scolders after a joke in which she compared Rush Limbaugh to Osama bin Laden. [Watch]||2009|
|7||AL FRANKENAnd now he's a senator. What a world. [Watch]||1994, 1996|
|8||JAY LENOLeno’s schtick never wore well with fans of edgier comedy, but the former "Tonight Show" host has been a durable go-to for the dinner, which he’s hosted four times. [Watch]||1987, 2000, 2004, 2010|
|9||DARRELL HAMMONDWhile folks were sad he didn't break out into his Bill Clinton riff, they found him entertaining nonetheless. [Watch]||2001|
|10||RICH LITTLEHowever long this list was going to be, Rich Little was always going to be last. He was specifically tapped as host the year after Colbert blew up the dinner, in the hopes that he would be bland and inoffensive. This was the only regard in which Little did not disappoint. [Watch]||2007|
Photos: Getty, Associated Press, Library of Congress